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Transforming the World of Manufacturing, One Student at a Time: An Interview with Executive Advisory Board Member and Visiting Professor Carol Ptak

By Kelli Breland
Co-Editor

Carol Ptak (far right) and some of of her undergraduate students visits with the owner of Oberand Longboards, Andy Oberbillig (background). The students (from left) are: Curtis Gao, Amanda Silva, Kelli Breland, Amanda Walls and Kelli Bumgardner. The team was visiting Oberand in Auburn, Wash. to analyze its business operations processes.

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Carol Ptak is both a recent addition to the Pacific Lutheran University School of Business Executive Advisory Board and a visiting professor for the fall semester. She is currently a partner at the Demand Driven Institute where she consults with companies around the world to improve their supply chain management. She was the School of Business Executive in Residence from 2005-2010, and has returned to teach BUSA 309: Creating Value in Operations to a class of undergraduate Students. Ptak is pioneering a new style of class meeting: students only meet in person four times during the semester, for eight hours at a time. The rest of the class is held online, including online presentations, meetings and lectures.

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KELLI BRELAND: You were PLU’s Executive in Residence from 2005-2010. What did you like most about your time teaching at PLU?

CAROL PTAK: What I like most about my time teaching at PLU is challenging undergrad students to examine why they believe what they believe.  I especially liked teaching Introduction to Business for the freshman class. It was very interesting to me to see how many students who said they were interested in business were really anti-business but did not understand why. I loved that course because we could have an open and honest discussion and explore why the student held that opinion, what was actually going on in business versus what the media reports, and have the students make their own conclusion given the facts and data. To me this is what teaching is all about – teaching students to think.

Of course my absolutely favorite was teaching in my field where I have spent 30 years – operations management.  Being able to bring the real world into the classroom was so rewarding to see students experience and explore the creation of value and how it impacts each of them personally not only in their career but also in their personal life.

Q: What drew you back to PLU as a visiting professor to teach BUSA 309: Creating Value in Operations?

A: First, I was delighted that Dean Miller would ask.  I am passionate on this subject because there are only two ways to create wealth – extraction and manufacturing.  Adam Smith wrote “Wealth of Nations” in 1776 and things have not changed since then.  Everything else transfers wealth. I also like how Smith also put profit in the context of the Christian principle to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Matthew 7:12).  I really enjoyed teaching when I was there full time but now my new company has been growing by leaps and bounds and we moved to Arizona.  I didn’t see how it would be possible to bring the new material we are developing in the market back to the classroom. Dean Miller, working with the PLU team, embraced the hybrid learning opportunity and broke the paradigm of a twice a week class with the professor as the only delivery model.  Not only was I presented the opportunity to bring new knowledge to the classroom but to do it in a new way so I jumped at the chance. I love taking on a challenge and even though I have taught this class many times I knew this approach would be different and it has proven itself to be.

Q: Your teaching style is unique – you blend technology with in-person meetings and a strong focus on experiential learning. Why do you teach in this style? What advantages do you and your students gain from this unique approach to learning?

A: Experiential lessons are those things that we really tend to remember.  I think back to my college days and I have retained maybe 2 percent of what I heard but most of what I experienced.  The university experience should provide the student with the foundation of their career and life so it is critical that the student learn to think critically.  You just can’t get that in a lecture.  For those items where a lecture format is appropriate there is no reason to have to be in the classroom physically.  We have been able to leverage the same technology I use at work to do lectures globally.  I think the students enjoy the fact that they have a choice on when to participate – either live when it is recorded or listening to it later on their computer or phone.  This generation is the technology generation and education has to adapt to those expectations.  The standard lecture in the classroom is not the only way to deliver knowledge.  The changes in Sakai in the past few years have been wonderful.  I have better feedback now about how students are doing and their level of engagement than when I was on campus.  I love the fact that I can now engage with my students in a variety of ways – texts, tweets, email, phone, LinkedIn etc.

From time to time I get a message from former students where they encountered a situation at work and they remembered a lesson from one of the experiential learning lessons they had.  That has to be the most rewarding part of teaching – having a student remember you and reach out to you.   Not only is the content you are teaching important, the process used to teach it I think is even more important sometimes.

Q: What are some of the challenges of your career in Supply Chain Management? What successes are you most proud of?

A: Wow – that is a great question.  I have been in Supply Chain Management even before we called it that.  Looking back at over 35 years of my career, it was a very different world.  When I graduated from college, the help wanted ads were still separated by “help wanted male” and “help wanted female.” Supply Chain Management was traditionally a very male-dominated profession.  I never thought of myself as a female operations manager – I just tried to be the best operations manager I could be.  Still being encountered daily by prejudice and preconceptions sure challenged me to stay in the field.

One of the successes I am most proud of was when I served in 2000 as the President and CEO of our professional society, APICS (American Production and Inventory Control Society).  This organization was founded in 1957 and never had a female in that position.  Again I didn’t run to be the first female president, I ran because I was passionate about the quality of the APICS certification and education.  The thing that disappoints me is that 15 years have passed and I remain the only female to ever serve in that role.  I know the time, energy and dedication that is necessary to accomplish that position and I don’t think any less of the other women that they have chosen to not pursue it.  I am so pleased when I go to the APICS international conference and see more than half of the attendees are women.

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Operations management is something that is encountered every day – in everything we do.  Learning how to look and SEE is foundation for future success

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The other success I am very proud of is to be part of the team that developed, codified and introduced Demand Driven Material Requirements Planning to the world.  This is the first dramatic change in how formal planning works since MRP was invented in 1953.  This movement has provided me the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in the world.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a partner at the Demand Driven Institute?

A: I love being part of a dynamic team that works globally to solve persistent supply chain issues. Companies struggle with having too much inventory of things that are not selling, too little inventory of the things they need and overall just have too much in inventory.  The Demand Driven methodology builds on the previous knowledge like lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, and formal planning like Material Requirements Planning and Distribution Requirement Planning but brings a different twist.  By focusing on flow, we have challenged the deep truths of the day including the concept that to have better customer service there has to be more inventory.  I love being a thought leader and shaking business leaders out of their comfort zone.  My job is all about the “thoughtware” – changing how people think.  It is also the toughest thing to do so it keeps me on my toes and continuing to learn.

Q: BUSA 309 includes a project that requires students to visit outside companies and evaluate their processes. What are your goals for student learning with this project?

A: The biggest thing I want students to learn is that the company developed those processes for a reason and to understand those reasons.  Graduating from college sometimes makes some students believe that they know everything and that the outside world must be pretty stupid that they don’t see the “right” way to do something. Digging into WHY a company does what it does is more important than WHAT the company does.

The goal of the project is to learn the why and then step back and consider what could be possible and explore why that should work.  In our experience this project also gets a number of students job offers from the companies that they have worked with because of the respect they showed to the current process and the creativity of the suggestions for improvement.

Operations management is something that is encountered every day – in everything we do.  Learning how to look and see is foundation for future success.

Q: What advice do you have for PLU School of Business alumni for supporting current students and PLU?

A: The best advice I have is to remember that you were once a student. Giving of your time and experience to current students is invaluable.  I was fortunate to have some excellent mentors in my career and it is so important to pay that forward.  If possible opening your company to students to analyze is such a help.  Having a safe and challenging environment to learn in is the best support the alumni can give the current students.  PLU is a special unique place and we need to continue to pay that forward.



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